The refugee crisis seems to be bringing to the surface the xenophobia and bigotry too often heard on our streets and all across Europe. On BBC Radio Scotland yesterday morning Scots took to the airwaves. “Our country is bursting at the seams”, ranted one man. “If we take them in, there’ll be killers roaming around our shopping centres. It’ll be like Lee Rigby”.
Another caller – Nora from Paisley – seemed to feel the major problem is these Syrians’ lack of patriotism. “I remember the war” she said piously. “We didn’t abandon wartime Britain – we stayed here, to fight for it”. The obvious stupidity of comparing war-torn Syria with Britain during WWII aside, it was her callousness that really struck me. Discussing Alyan Kurdi, the little boy washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Nora from Paisley asked “Where’s his mother? That’s what I want to know”. “She died on the way”, said the presenter. Nora was unfazed. “She should have stayed in Syria”.
A quick glance at the comments underneath news articles or on social media can show you equally callous and xenophobic remarks. Have a look at the Facebook page of ‘The Orcadian’ for a perhaps surprising source of bile against refugees. It’s everywhere. Then there’s the actions of police and governments – as I write, an ITV journalist is tweeting pictures from Hungary, where police are dragging refugees off trains to send them to camps. Similar scenes are coming from Czech Republic – huddled families being taken away; uniformed police writing numbers on the arms of little children with marker pens. This isn’t surprising. Australia has long had internment camps for migrants, run by private security forces, which are sites of sexual abuse, torture and death. The UK has its own network of Serco-run prisons for migrants.
Watching this, you can see the historical precedents standing out a mile. Alongside the rise of genuinely neo-nazi movements across Europe – now becoming more visible as they attack refugees in ‘patrols’ – it can seem that history is repeating itself.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this tide of hatred and xenophobia. But that’s not the only story.
Look beyond those who shout the loudest and you can see a huge movement of solidarity and concern. Not everyone buys into the Daily Mail version of events. Not by half. Yes, there was Nora from Paisley and her ilk – and they’re the ones who stick in the mind. But the Radio Scotland show was in fact dominated by calls from people desperately wanting to do something to help; deploring Cameron’s stance as immoral and disgusting; countering the xenophobic remarks with facts, figures and statements of solidarity.
People are acting in huge numbers to show their support for the refugees. Facebook groups set up to coordinate aid and support have been inundated with offers and supporters. Candlelit vigils to be held on Saturday in Glasgow and Edinburgh have thousands of attendees already, and donations of food and clothing are pouring in to collection points across the country, destined for Calais. These are real grassroots efforts; the result of people who desperately want to do something useful.
This idea of practical solidarity is visible everywhere – and social media is crucial to it. In Iceland, it was a Facebook group that was the catalyst for over 11,000 Icelanders offering to take Syrian refugees into their homes, forcing the Prime Minister to revise his initial limit of 50 refugees. A similar group has been set up in Scotland, urging those with spare rooms to sign up. Called ‘We Have Room’, the introductory post reminds us that 80,000 Jewish refugees came to Scotland during WWII, and that that Scots and Irish refugees have settled all over the world in huge numbers. You could add to that the fact that UK citizens enjoy freedom of movement all over the world; our baby-boomers in particular tending to enjoy the benefits of cheap Spanish property.
A bit of collective soul-searching is no bad thing at times like this. What kind of society are we, really? The myths of warm, welcoming Scotland, with our ‘social democracy’ and the misty-eyed references to shipyards and solidarity, are put to the test now. Shrugging our shoulders would not be good enough. Asylum seekers are facing destitution on the streets of Glasgow and being housed in appalling conditions – do we wring our hands over the failures of the Smith Commission and turn away?
The summit on Friday brought welcome news that the First Minister will commit to accept 1,000 refugees – as a “starting point”, not a cap. We can welcome many more. It is excellent to see that the meeting included detailed discussion of logistics and planning, rather than being a platform for soundbites.